THE SIGN OF DAWN by James Wylie


Email this review


From the author of the fine The Homestead Grays (1977): an erratic but impassioned political thriller set in near-future Brazil amid riotous local color and conflicting loyalties. Once again Wylie settles on a burdened black leader as his moral center: Jordan Mallory, the son of a Harlem Renaissance writer and himself an ex-professor, has espoused unpopular causes--fighting with the Vietminh against the French in Indochina, with Lumumba in the Congo, with the Cubans in Angola--and he has now been asked by Castro to lead an expedition 2000 miles up the Amazon to deliver politician Machado da Silva to riot-torn Brasilia, where a new anti-US government is to be formed after the civil war crests. Mallory feels doomed all the way: his own idealism is broken, mulatto Machado seems the wrong man to be president, and the journey is nearly impossible with his unstable crew and attacks from US jets. Among Mallory's companions on this Conrad-ian trek: Harry Philpot, alcoholic renegade heart surgeon; ex-SS officer Johannes Siemels, an Amazon guide who is obsessed with finding Kankanka, a lost city of gold; part-Indian Joao Durado, a defrocked priest who urged Brazilian Catholics to kill tyrants and tried to free the priests from the European Church; old sidekick and campaigner Doug Woodlief; and greeneyed mulatto Dona Julia, an elegant, full-breasted, famed terrorist (""the goddess of the revolution"") who's the would-be savior of Brazil--as is Durado, which makes for three rival saviors on the trip. The journey is beset not only by piranhas, uncivilized Stone Agers and cannibals, but is also prey to enemy Army copters, jaguars, poisonous stinger rays, anacondas, etc. And when a plane rendezvous fails, the trekkers must continue on foot: Mallory and Julia fall in love. Finally, however, politics annihilates romance--in an implausible windup involving betrayals, compromise sell-outs, and absurd mob scenes in the capital. Throughout, in fact, Wylie never quite decides whether he's writing a surreal adventure-fable or a heavily political melodrama; as a result, there are far too many loose ends to tie up in that frenetic finale, and the high seriousness here sometimes slips over into pretentiousness. But Mallory is an intriguing figure, much of the jungle-journey action is compellingly bizarre, and the issues raised (even when unwieldy) are important ones: a worthy, perhaps overambitious thriller-of-ideas, then, which deserves a sizable audience despite its inconsistent tone and lapses in credibility.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking